Contrary to popular belief, family separation has not ended at our southern border. The inhumane process still exists, under a new name, hurting the most vulnerable migrant populations fleeing violence, natural disaster, economic fallout, and now, a pandemic.
A recent video from CBS of a 10-year unaccompanied minor from Nicaragua crying and asking for help from a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Officer went viral. He explains that he has been abandoned by those he was traveling with and was kidnapped in Mexico.
He and his mother sought safety as asylum-seekers in the United States, but were quickly deported by the Biden administration.
Lost and afraid in the vast arid border stretching 1,942 miles, separated from his mother after the deportation, he was subject to the dangerous conditions of violence, kidnapping, and scorching heat of the Sonoran desert.
The Biden Administration has created a system of quasi-family-separation under the powers of Title 42, a Trump-era executive order. According to the American Immigration Council, under Title 42, the Biden Administration has facilitated the expulsion of entire families that arrive at Ports of Entry (POE) throughout the southern border.
The recent spike in migrant apprehensions signals a dangerous trend for migration patterns in a region with more families and unaccompanied minors willing to make the dangerous trip through the Sonoran Desert. As of February 2021, border agents have encountered over 9,000 migrants, which is the highest figure for one month since 2019. Scholars and community activists predict that in the coming months there could be a record-breaking influx of asylum-seekers, especially minors that are both accompanied and unaccompanied. According to current statutes, minors have to be detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, but cannot be incarcerated for longer than 72 hours.
The influx in February of 2021 has overwhelmed the current system, and migrant children are being detained in facilities for extended periods of time, a direct criticism the Biden campaign made of former-President Trump. We need direct policy solutions to alleviate the impending crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, without delegating the responsibility to Mexico, as previous administrations have attempted. The tripartite combination of greater weather, successful mitigation of COVID-19, and a perceived shift in rhetoric about immigrants coming to the U.S. is directly responsible for the sharp and steadily increasing rate of border apprehensions.
Beyond February 2021, according to preliminary data from Customs and Border Patrol, over 190,000 migrants have sought asylum or entry to the United States via the Southern border in the month of March alone. This number of migrants has set yet another precedent and a new record for the single-month total apprehension in a decade. As each subsequent month exceeds previously recorded surges, it is clear that this year and the confluence of crisis emerging throughout the globe, but especially in Central America is creating the conditions for forced displacement at a moment when the United States is underprepared to receive asylees. Republican critics of President Biden and several major media outlets are seeking to label this surge in migrant arrivals as a crisis or national security and humanitarian catastrophe and they point to Biden’s “soft on immigration” rhetoric demonstrated during his campaign and within the first few days of his presidency.
The consistent fluctuation of migrants is not unique to any one presidency, and there has been on-going policy failure at our Southern border for over three decades.
President Donald Trump in March of 2020 passed what is commonly known as “Title 42”, an order in accordance with CDC guidelines to restrict transit within the United States in response to COVID-19, but an order that is in direct violation of international human rights instruments. A memo from the U.S. Customs & Border Patrol demonstrates that the United States is utilizing Title 42 to expel migrants seeking protection, even those with legal claims to asylum while also releasing arrivants, regardless of country of origin, to be released to their country of last transit, not birth.
The Biden Administration’s greatest failure lies within their inability to effectively address the moral and responsibilities underscored in Title 42, while still maintaining a commitment to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Migrant expulsion is legal under Title 42, and allows border officials to turn away families regardless of asylum claims or country of origin.
This new legal process has created conditions very similar to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), another Trump-era policy that forced those seeking asylum to wait in Mexico while their asylum case was being processed, a move that is directly dissonant to international human rights protocols and asylum laws.
The only exception made in various circumstances to the guidelines set forth in Title 42 is that minors, specifically unaccompanied minors are to be processed into the United States. The system of quasi-family-separation is born when families choose to send their children across the desert on their own to maximize the chances of gaining admission to the United States, and are now separated in an effort to subvert the current stringent policies. The current administration has left many families with no choice.
Regardless of family separation, dangerous conditions, the threat of kidnapping, violence, and natural elements in the Sonoran desert, children have been making the journey in numbers greater than a decade of recorded apprehensions. Title 42, and the Biden administrations lack of preparation for this predicted surge is directly responsible for forcing the difficult choice on families seeking protection, and the new paradigm of family separation and unaccompanied minors.
In a series of images obtained by the Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX), the detention facilities holding the migrants, many of which are predominantly children, underscores the carceration crisis that has been inextricably linked to immigration to the United States. These photos serve as the genesis of our current political moment. Upon the media-frenzy that followed the release of the photo, it is clear there is a public appetite for urgent and swift federal intervention.
This national awareness signals the opening of the policy window as the nation observes whether the administration can meet one of their major campaign commitments, and President Biden’s moral criticism of President Trump’s family separation policies.
As the first major litmus test for President Biden, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Vice President Harris, who has recently been appointed to spearhead U.S. response to the Southern border, there is mounting bipartisan pressure for a swift, yet comprehensive answer to the problem.
To be absolutely clear — the “crisis” at the southern border is not a crisis of migrants storming our nation’s borders. Border and migration experts have warned agencies about this surge for months. The “crisis” at the southern border is a cascading crisis of failed policies, inhumane solutions, and lack of planning and preparation.
Every child, adult, or infant being held in a detention facility longer than 72 hours, or turned away at our nation’s southern border is a policy failure, and as our nation contends with a return to normalcy after enduring a global pandemic – there is widespread political will within state and local government agencies near the border, elected officials in Washington, and grassroots immigrant advocacy organizations across the country.
Can this administration keep its campaign promises? The answer, as of now, is a resounding no.
Devashish (Dave) Basnet ’22 is a Jeanette K. Watson Fellow, Eva Kastan Grove Fellow, Mellon Public Humanities Scholar, Roosevelt Scholar, Phyllis L. Kossoff & Thomas Hunter Scholar who grew up in Nepal. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, with minors in public policy, human rights, sociology, and Asian-American Studies at Hunter College in New York City. Devashish has worked in the non-profit and policymaking sector, specifically working towards migrant and vulnerable refugee protection policy with the International Rescue Committee in New York and Arizona, and currently serves as a lead student organizer for the Student/Farmworker Alliance. After serving as a Human Rights Legal Fellow at Justice Centre Hong Kong, a policy and legal services-oriented organization serving asylum-seekers and broader migration policy implementation throughout Asia, Devashish has joined the renowned Fund for Peace, a cutting-edge think tank in Washington D.C. researching nation-state fragility, forced displacement and electoral crises, and is currently supporting unaccompanied minors and deportation defense in Texas with RAICES. At Hunter, Devashish serves on the Roosevelt House Student Advisory Board, sits on the CUNY University Student Senate (USS) and serves as a Junior Senator in the Hunter Undergraduate Student Senate.